Before we start, you need to know about the Alameda County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) and the Bay Area Legal Incubator (BALI). Our LRS refers clients to attorneys assigned to various subject matter panels. As an LRS panel member, you receive quality referrals for a small fraction of the cost of advertising in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet. Our service is well-established, respected in the Alameda County legal community, and certified by the State Bar of California. BALI is a business coaching community of diverse attorneys growing successful legal businesses while providing accessible legal services. Both attorneys in this tale use the ACBA LRS and BALI to grow their businesses and serve our community.
Murder. Witchcraft. Deception.
Little did LRS and BALI attorneys John Moore and Anuar Ramirez-Medina realize they would grapple with these issues when they agreed to speak with an LRS-referred client about his probate case. The client’s elderly mother lived on her own in the East Bay home where she had raised her children. During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the client and his siblings saw their mother less often, trying to limit their contact for fear of spreading the virus. During this time of social isolation, around December 2020, the mother met Isabel through a mutual acquaintance. Isabel befriended her, gained her trust, and took on the role of the mother’s caretaker and advisor. At the time, Isabel was homeless and living out of her car. The mother agreed to let Isabel live with her.
Isabel wheedles her way into the mother’s life, driving a wedge between the mother and her family.
Isabel quickly convinced the mother to sell her home, helped her hire a real estate agent, and opened a Wells Fargo bank account in her and the mother’s name. Within four months of meeting the mother, Isabel had arranged for the sale of the mother’s house, had the sale proceeds placed in the joint Wells Fargo account, and then convinced the mother to move into a home with her owned by Isabel’s extended family.
Shortly after moving in with Isabel, the mother fell ill. Isabel had been closely attending to the mother with a series of herbal home remedies brewed as a “tea,” which the client described as smelling terrible and of which he was highly suspicious. Within a month of moving in with Isabel, the mother was hospitalized and died.
The ACBA Lawyer Referral Service gets involved.
Upon the mother’s death, the client and his siblings filed a probate action and contacted the ACBA Lawyer Referral Service for assistance. LRS Attorney and probate litigator John Moore agreed to speak with the client. John immediately invited Anuar Ramirez-Medina to be co-counsel.
‘Murder, foul, foul’
Anuar was responsible for developing a relationship and communicating with the client, who, in turn, shared with his other two siblings and their family. Anuar describes the client as “a former Golden Gloves boxer readying himself for the next fight. He came into our office crying, ‘Murder, foul, foul.’ He described observing Isabel brewing herbal concoctions and intoning chants and spells to overpower his mother with witchcraft. He was convinced that Isabel had poisoned and murdered his mother.”
While no autopsy of the mother was performed, the medical records of her last hospitalization showed a condition that raised the eyebrows of the client and both his legal counsel. Proving murder, even to a civil standard of proof, was problematic. And unnecessary. Isabel produced a purported oral will of the mother, transcribed by Isabel’s son, then allegedly signed by the mother, leaving her home to Isabel. John explains, “But even to a layperson, the signature, compared to original exemplars, did not match the mother’s. Her primary language was Spanish, the language she spoke to Isabel. The will was written in English. Why the mother would announce her will in English and why Isabel’s Spanish-speaking son would write it in English are mysteries no court will ever determine.” While opening a criminal investigation would have satisfied the client, it would not have resulted in more money for the family.
The client was understandably embittered. He wanted Isabel to be held to account for the murder of his mother; he wanted to see her prosecuted and sent to jail. However, the client and his siblings had few resources between them. And the truth was that the remaining proceeds from the house sale were sitting in a bank account owned by Isabel. They worried that she would abscond with the funds and disappear. They were faced with a series of hard decisions.
An unheroic but successful strategy
John and Anuar made a pragmatic strategy decision, which John describes as largely “unheroic.” They decided the best strategy would be to tread lightly to avoid spooking Isabel to recover as much money for the family as possible. Anuar was tasked with conveying this idea to the client through many delicate conversations that involved setting reasonable expectations while respecting the client’s emotions and dignity.
Of the approximate $400,000 from the house sale, $247,000 remained in Isabel’s bank account. At mediation, some of the money was dedicated to paying taxes on the house sale, which had not been born earlier. Both attorneys were utterly surprised and relieved when Isabel’s check for $103,000 cleared and was deposited in the client’s bank account to be shared among his family.
Without a clear path to proving murder or unraveling the intricate web of deceit, John and Anuar employed a pragmatic strategy. They delicately navigated through the client’s emotions and the family’s complex decisions, understanding that the pursuit of justice must sometimes take unexpected routes. Applying their understanding of the law, along with a touch of creativity and practicality, they achieved a resolution that allowed the client and his family to recover a significant portion of the funds, providing relief.
This probate case is a testament to the fact that attorneys, especially those involved in the ACBA Lawyer Referral Service, often deal with complex, real-world scenarios that require more than just legal expertise. It demands an understanding of human emotions, a knack for diplomacy, and a willingness to craft untraditional solutions when faced with unconventional challenges. In the end, the attorneys used their legal insight not only to untangle the legal intricacies but also to bring about a resolution that, while not a fairytale ending, provided a semblance of justice and financial recovery for the client and his family.
Lawyer Referral Service and BALI | Bay Area Legal Incubator
John Moore is a long-time LRS member and recipient of the ACBA Distinguished Service Award for Attorney. He also serves as a mentor with the ACBA Bay Area Legal Incubator (BALI) Braintrust, a group of seasoned attorneys who provide mentorship to BALI members. John’s interest in becoming active in the BALI Braintrust is straightforward. As he describes, “I am in semi-retirement. I have a lot of experience in trial work, and at this point in my career, I’d like to pass it on. I enjoy working in the BALI community space and with BALI members. It beats my office high-rise cubicle any day.”
Anuar Ramirez-Medina has been a member of BALI and LRS since approximately 2020. Anuar notes, “At BALI, John sits next to me. I can roll my chair over, lean over to him, and ask him questions that otherwise would take me 30 minutes to unravel, and I still have more questions. Reflecting further, Anuar adds, “This type of one-on-one mentorship is unique. You might find something similar at a large law firm, but that would come with firm billables. BALI doesn’t have that.”
To learn more about the Bay Area Legal Incubator, please contact BALI Director Natalia Venkso at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Lawyer Referral Service, please get in touch with LRS Director Rachel Shigekane at email@example.com.